As a case study in Clausewitz’s famous axiom that war is a continuation of politics by others means, the Israeli–Hezbollah conflict is almost ideal. Hezbollah wants to stay on Israel’s northern border, toward the ultimate goal of wiping Israel off the map. Israel wants Hezbollah pushed off the border, toward the ultimate goal of eliminating Hezbollah as an armed militia. These obviously are irreconcilable political goals. When the struggle to advance them moves from the battlefield to the diplomatic arena, they remain just as irreconcilable, as we are witnessing in what may be the unraveling of the U.S./French-proposed ceasefire resolution at the United Nations.
It was supposed to be voted on as early as today. But Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, and the Arab League are objecting to it, prompting the French already to want to renegotiate it. The French appear not to have realized how far they had bent in the U.S. direction in the deal on the resolution, a sign of the negotiating prowess of a Bush administration that is often excoriated for having none. The draft called for a ceasefire from Hezbollah and an end to Israeli “offensive” operations, while the Israelis would hold southern Lebanon until an international force could be deployed there as stipulated by a second U.N. resolution. The Lebanese and the Arab League object to Israel’s staying in Lebanon and want it to hand over the south to a Lebanese army and a slightly larger U.N. force immediately.
This might seem a mere matter of sequencing, but it’s not. It’s a proxy for the central issue in the war. If Israel leaves immediately, Hezbollah will be right back on its northern border. The Lebanese government isn’t even trying to hide this fact. A Lebanese official said yesterday that, under its scheme, Hezbollah would remain in the south “as a party that represents an entire segment of the population.” Since the Lebanese army is a joke, and even the Israeli operations have so far been unable to disarm Hezbollah of its rockets, this is a formula for a return to the status quo ante, or worse.
Ideally, the U.S and France would insist on the current resolution, but it will surely be renegotiated, and any new resolution is likely to tilt against Israel. The absolute red line that shouldn’t be crossed is any backing away from Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah. Any weakening on that front would send the signal that violence and defiance are the way to change the U.N.’s mind. But the incentive for Hezbollah and its sympathizers actually to go along with 1559 is weak. Arabs are complaining that the proposed U.S./French resolution hands the Israelis their military objective by diplomatic means. So it does.
And here’s the rub: Israel does not appear to have been able to weaken Hezbollah sufficiently to compel it to go along with any settlement acceptable to the Jewish state. Perhaps when the fog of war lifts, Israel will be revealed to have damaged Hezbollah in a way that isn’t evident right now. If Israel were waging a war against bridges, highways, and south Beirut apartment buildings, it would be winning a smashing victory. But it is fighting a tenacious guerilla force that can be swept out of the south only with the kind of massive ground invasion that it has so far wanted to avoid. Instead, Israel has contented itself with quick hit-and-run raids, and has consequently been forced to fight for control of villages just inside the Lebanese border two or three times over.
Absent a clear Hezbollah defeat, a satisfactory diplomatic result is hard to imagine. The Lebanese government and other Arabs will find it difficult to stand up to a militia that fought the mighty Israelis at least to a draw. Any international peacekeeping force, meanwhile, is unlikely to hold its own against a Hezbollah that hasn’t been de-fanged, and such a force may well only become complicit in Hezbollah’s control of the south, in a repeat of the feckless performance of the current force, UNIFIL.
There are a few options, then. Israel could significantly broaden its military offensive, which would offer the best chance of changing the dynamic; this is still under consideration. It could continue to fight a limited war against Hezbollah in some form or other for weeks, hoping that it can hurt Hezbollah over time and that no political disaster — like the fall of the Lebanese government — will happen in the interim. Or it can let American diplomacy run its course and hope for the best, knowing that the U.S. is not operating in ideal circumstances and that, even if Hezbollah accepts a deal, the outcome will probably only be a stopgap prior to the next war. If none of Israel’s options is appealing, it is because there are consequences to waging a mediocre military campaign.
The U.S. has an interest in seeing the hostile states of Syria and Iran weakened through their proxy Hezbollah, so it is a disappointment that Israel isn’t decisively winning against the terror group. But this is part of a broad, ongoing struggle with Islamism for control of the Middle East. There will be other battles.